- Courtesy Of Shannon Stem
- Sean Stem
Sean Stem hadn't lived long in the Winooski apartment where he died. Police found needles along with his body on March 29, according to Stem's family, and came to the conclusion that he overdosed. The longtime Burlington-area resident was 26 years old.
Sean was one of more than 120 Vermonters felled by opiate overdoses since 2014, many of whom passed away with only close friends or family knowing what had happened to them.
But Sean's death was different, marked by an unusual obituary that ran in local publications, including Seven Days. It noted bluntly that he died "after fighting a long, terrible battle of addiction."
"Perhaps the drugs offered him a needed escape from a world too big and overwhelming to manage successfully," it read. "Clearly the addiction took over in ways we cannot understand. And perhaps we cannot truly know another's pain, another's journey. We just know that we must keep on trying, keep reaching out, keep asking for solutions to this tragic epidemic."
Urging others to come forward, it was a call to action.
"Those in the know about addiction, especially heroin, must share what they know. Families, friends, and the community have to share their pain, their struggles, so others may know and feel less alone, less confused, less shame."
Obituaries don't usually divulge overdose deaths — or suicides, for that matter. Unlike news stories, they tend to be written by family members and funeral directors who decide which details to include. When they employ terms such as "died unexpectedly" or "after a long struggle" or "untimely death," the public can only read between the lines.
Devastated by Sean's death and the treatment community's failure to help him, Sean's family rejected the refuge provided by euphemisms.
"It really started out of anger," said his sister Shannon Stem. "We needed to say something. There's so much shame around the idea of being addicted ... We were pissed off. We're not embarrassed about it at all. There's no shame on our end."
Their approach appears to be a nationwide trend. Last year, the New York Times noted that an increasing number of obituaries for heroin overdose victims detailed how they died and read "more like personal eulogies than death notices." The paper attributed the change to an increasing willingness to view opiate abuse as a health problem, not a crime.
But in Vermont, public frankness about drug deaths is still relatively rare. Since Sean's death, Seven Days has run another obituary for a man suspected to have overdosed that did not state a cause of death.
Jim Kennedy, who owns LaVigne Funeral Home in Winooski, said that in recent years, several families have thought about writing obituaries like Sean's. But they decided against it. "It's not usually embarrassment," he said. "It was more they didn't know for sure or because there was a grandmother still alive they didn't want to know." Toxicology tests can take weeks.
Kennedy speculates that older funeral directors likely advise against candor while "the younger ones tend to see it as an expression of grief," he said, reasoning, "If that helps, more power to them."
There was no debate among the Stems — a cash-strapped family that has lived in various Burlington area homes over the years. In the hours after his death, family members gathered in his mother's home in downtown Burlington. They knew what they wanted to say.
And they knew who they wanted to say it: Shannon, the eldest of nine siblings and half siblings, is a second mother to many them — and the best writer in the bunch.
She left the house of mourners and drove to the nearby home of her friend Hilary Grismore. She grabbed Grismore's laptop and began hammering out sentences that alternately celebrated her brother and raged against the drugs that killed him. Grismore helped her polish the words. Shannon showed the finished product to her mother and siblings. It read exactly as they had hoped, her sister Colleen Stem said.
Sean was number six in the Stem family. With a perfect smile, distinctive Afro and sweet demeanor, he got along with everyone in his crowded childhood home and popped up in a disproportionate number of family photos. He was always game for meeting his siblings out for drinks or just for a talk. Their friends quickly became his friends.
But he struggled in school — Shannon says he had both a learning disability and, she feared, undiagnosed mental health problems. Sean dropped out of Champlain Valley Union High School before graduating, though he later earned his GED.
His passion was skateboarding. He started boarding around age 9 and, with his lean, athletic frame, took to it immediately. Videos online show him gracefully flipping over curbs and grinding on railings in downtown Burlington. In one, he looks on nonchalantly as a Burlington cop writes him a ticket.
Sean became a semiprofessional skater, compensated with clothes, boards and other swag — which he usually offered to his family members — and travel expenses to appear at skating competitions around the country.
At home in Burlington, he was a doting uncle, eager to shoot hoops or catch a movie with his nine nieces and nephews. When he died, he had pictures of them all in a bag he carried with him.
But off his skateboard, he suffered from a lack of direction. He sometimes turned to alcohol or marijuana. About a year or so ago — his siblings said they still don't know the full story — he began using heroin.
He went to rehab a few times, but the treatments didn't sink in. He also struggled with the paperwork and bureaucracy of the health care world, according to his sisters.
"He didn't know how to use the help or ask for any resources," Shannon said. "And when you get out of rehab, what is there?"
Family members let him crash with them and tried to help him find a job. But there was no playbook for them to follow.
"There's a fine line between helping someone going through addiction and helping enable them," Shannon said.
Sean was turned away from a crisis center a few weeks ago, his sisters said, but they don't know why. "He didn't want to be a drug addict," Colleen said. "He wanted to be healthy and happy. He tried so hard."
When they got the call from police, family members assembled on the sidewalk outside Sean's apartment in downtown Winooski. Shannon held her grief-stricken mother upright as a police officer explained to her that she couldn't go inside to see her boy while the cops were investigating. The case is still open, but it has since been labeled a suspected overdose, according to family members.
Sean's death was one in a spate of recent overdoses in the Burlington area.
In the past few weeks, 28-year-old Rup Padel fatally overdosed in an apartment on Luck Street and Leslie Johnson, a 50-year-old woman, died of a heroin overdose in her North Street apartment. Officers were able to revive a 25-year-old woman who overdosed on South Willard Street on April 8 using the overdose-reversing nasal spray Narcan.
Peter Espenshade, president of Vermont Association for Mental Health and Addiction Recovery, said the way the Stems have reacted to their loss is a powerful example.
"There should be no stigma around drug addiction. It is simply a health condition. But public health awareness takes time," Espenshade said. "It took time with understanding the relations with tobacco and cancer, between diet and diabetes, and, in this case, it's going to take time to get the culture on board. That's what makes families like this so courageous. They're in the vanguard."
The response to Sean's obituary, especially on social media, has been encouraging, his sisters said. Dozens of people, old friends and total strangers, have come forward with praise. The family hopes it will encourage other relatives of addicts to ask for help. One local woman agreed to enter rehab after her father showed her the obituary, Shannon said.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the family celebrated what would have been Sean's 27th birthday, trading pictures, stories and dirty jokes.
Before he died, Sean left a pile of clean clothes, folded and neatly stacked, by his sister Shannon's washing machine. She said she can't bring herself to move it.